Even if Theoren Fleury’s comeback bid winds up going nowhere, the little runt has managed to write himself a neat little bonus chapter if his conveniently soon-to-be released autobiography has a second printing. If nothing else, Fleury coaxed a few more of the undecideds into his corner on Thursday night by dramatically scoring the shootout winner in a pre-season tilt with the New York Islanders.
What Fleury is attempting to do isn’t unprecedented but it’s important to note that most of the great sports comebacks were accomplished by athletes much younger than the 41-year-old winger.
Just a few of those other second comings are sampled below but first, here’s a completely unrelated question: If animal activists are successful in their quest to have Lucy the elephant relocated from Edmonton to California, will the pachyderm then be renamed Chris Pronger?
OK, on to the sports encores of the past:
Gordie Howe, hockey: Mr. Hockey was two years older than Fleury is now when he retired for the first time in 1971. Two years later, at age 45, he was back in the game as a member of the Houston Aeros in the World Hockey Association. Howe had three 30-goal seasons in the WHA and had a 15-goal, 41-point campaign as a 51-year-old with Hartford after the Whalers joined the NHL as part of the so-called NHL-WHA merger.
Guy Lafleur, hockey: The Flower was just 33 when he hung up the skates as a result of serious differences with former linemate Jacques Lemaire, who had become the Habs’ coach. Three years later, with suspiciously thicker hair than when he had left the game, Lafleur returned at age 37 and scored 107 points over three seasons with the Rangers and Nordiques. He retired for good at age 39, two years younger than Fleury is now.
Mario Lemieux, hockey: Chronic back trouble, just one entry on Mario Le Magnifique’s thick medical dossier, forced Lemieux to pack it in at age 31. He returned at age 35 and played in parts of five more seasons but continued to be bothered by numerous ailments. Still, he dazzled when he did play as he accumulated 229 points in 170 games.
Michael Jordan, basketball: Not happy to have just one comeback, Jordan returned to the NBA on two separate occasions. Of course, having originally quit at age 30, he did allow himself a lot of time to do revivals. His first comeback started at the age of 32 and lasted for four years, during which time he won the MVP award twice and helped the Chicago bulls win two championships. In 2001 at age 38, he returned once again and averaged better than 20 points per game over two seasons with the Washington Wizards.
Pele, soccer: The futbol legend went into semi-retirement in 1972 but returned in 1975 at age 34 to play for the North American Soccer League’s New York Cosmos. He played three seasons in New York.
Lance Armstrong, cycling: Inspirational to some, controversial to others, Armstrong returned to competitive cycling at age 37 after an absence of more than three years. He turned in an impressive third-place finish at the 2009 Tour de France.
George Foreman, boxing: As the story goes, Foreman found God in 1977 and stopped fighting at age 28. He was back in the ring a decade later and enjoyed surprising success before hanging up the gloves again in 1997. At age 45, having made the conversion from snarly thug to lovable lug, he became the oldest heavyweight champion in history when he defeated Michael Moorer in 1994.
Martina Navratilova, tennis: The Czechoslovakia-born Navratilova was already considered by many the greatest women’s tennis player in history when she retired in 1994 at age 38. She returned to the courts at age 43 and while she played sparingly in the singles division, she earned a number of mixed doubles titles at Grand Slam events including the 2006 U.S. Open when she was just a few weeks shy of her 50th birthday.
Dara Torres, swimming: At the ripe old age of 41 — ancient in the swimming game — the American returned to the Olympic pool in 2008 after an eight-year absence and won a silver medal in the 50m freestyle as well as another silver in the 4×100 team relay.